"Please," wrote the woman from Alexandria, "lest I be denigrated as a grouch, grump or cynic, if you should choose to use this letter, or any part thereof, use a pseudonym (preferably a Jane Smith rather than a Gertrude Mugwump)."

Fair enough, Ms. Smith. But I hardly think anyone's going to find you crabbish. What happened to you could have happened to anybody -- and your proposed remedy strikes me as an excellent idea.

The episode that gave rise to Ms. Smith's concern occurred on the Beltway last month, near the Virginia side of the Cabin John bridge, at evening rush hour. Jane was going to visit a friend when her car sprung a flat.

She pulled to the side of the road and started to change it. But "the mechanic who had last rotated my tires had tightened the lug bolts to within a thread of their lives, and no amount of pulling, twisting and turning by all the energy in my five-foot body would loosen them."

So Jane put on the four-way flashers and waited. Surely a cop would be along soon to help.

An hour went by.


It got dark.

It got chilly.

No cop.

And no one else, either, even though Jane had by now lifted the hood, honked her horn repeatedly, dimmed and undimmed her lights and flashed her flashlight.

Finally, after three hours, a park policeman stopped. He said this wasn't his territory, and that a Virginia state trooper should be along soon. However, the park policeman offered to call the AAA. Her battery now dead, Jane said that would be a very good idea, indeed. The officer radioed in the message, changed Jane's tire and left.

A few minutes later, a state trooper arrived at last. He "apologized profusely," Jane writes, but added that there had been "a lot of accidents so the troopers were all tied up elsewhere." His final not-so-reassuring words: "I'll come by in a couple of hours to make sure the AAA came" It did, in just a few more minutes.

Jane doesn't condemn the Virgina trooper, and I don't, either. There are plenty of nights when troopers really are too busy to patrol every stretch of highway to which they're assigned.

What bugs Jane -- and me -- is that "not one person thought to report a stranded motorist to the police when they got home."

Sure, it's risky to stop and help a stranger. Sure, very few people have time to spare. But once you get where you're going, how much risk do you run or time do you spend by calling 911 and saying, "Hey, has anyone notified you yet about the disabled car near the Cabin John bridge?"

I'm going to do it the next time I see a car by the side of the road. I hope you will, too.